On The Job – Texas: Apartment Cockloft Fire Taxes Houston Firefighters as 30 Units Are Destroyed in Fast-Spreading Inferno

Tom McDonald reports on a fire in a non-sprinklered building that gave more than 100 Houston firefighters one of their toughest assignments in many months.


HOUSTON FIRE DEPTARTMENT Chief: Phil Boriskie Personnel: 3,877 career firefighters Apparatus: 87 engines, 37 ladders (including three towers), one heavy rescue, two tactical rescues, three air cascade units, plus fully integrated EMS operations, a Hazardous Materials Response Team and ARFF...


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HOUSTON FIRE DEPTARTMENT
Chief: Phil Boriskie
Personnel: 3,877 career firefighters
Apparatus: 87 engines, 37 ladders (including three towers), one heavy rescue, two tactical rescues, three air cascade units, plus fully integrated EMS operations, a Hazardous Materials Response Team and ARFF units at two commercial airports
Population: 2.1 million
Area: 617 square miles

On the sweltering afternoon of Tuesday, June 13, 2006, a fire in a non-sprinklered, three-story apartment building with an open cockloft and interior hallways gave more than 100 members of the Houston Fire Department (HFD) one of their toughest assignments in many months. While the city baked under 100-degree heat, firefighters battled the four-alarm blaze for three hours. More than two dozen families were left homeless.

The first alarm at the Winfield II Condominiums was dispatched at 4:16 P.M., sending more than 30 firefighters, including two incident command system (ICS) officers, on four engines, two ladder trucks, two district chief units, an ambulance, a squad (an SUV staffed by paramedics) and an incident safety officer (ISO) to the scene in the far southwest corner of the city. The HFD staffs three ISO units that respond in SUVs and are manned by a senior captain or district chief. These units respond initially on most structure fires and all hazmat calls across the city.

The apartment complex was composed of six three-story, garden-style buildings, each with 10 units per floor, accessed through interior hallways with self-closing doors on apartments and at stairwells. There were smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in hallways, but no sprinklers in the buildings. The complex was constructed prior to local fire code changes that now require sprinklers in such apartment buildings when they are built. Each building had a flat roof that rested above an undivided cockloft framed with lightweight wood components.

Like all of the buildings in the complex, the fire building was of wood-frame construction with a combination of brick, decorative sheet metal and wood siding on its exterior. Each apartment in the fire building had a screened patio, sided entirely with wood, the sum of which accounted for well over half of the building's exposed surface area.

With a street-level parking lot abutting it on most of three sides, the fire building was easily accessible to fire apparatus, but metal pedestrian security gates on the south side hindered firefighter access initially. The complex's office staff identified the fire structure as Building B. It measured approximately 200 feet long by 60 feet deep, and was separated on its east end from the identical Building A by a small, three-story structure that housed an elevator and lobbies for each floor. This small elevator structure connected Building A to Building B. Fire doors protected the elevator building on each floor, but flames did threaten it through the cockloft. A hoseline was brought in through Building A to protect that side. The original fire apartment was on the second floor of Building B, only one unit west of this elevator structure.

Initial Attack

Engine 68 was the first-due company and, indeed, arrived first. Captain Russell Harris reported fire and smoke coming from an apartment unit on the second floor. Harris, a veteran officer on Engine 68, was no stranger to this complex. He ordered his crew to pull a 1¾-inch attack line into the building, intending to stretch it up through an interior stairwell adjacent to the elevator building, but was blocked by a locked pedestrian gate.

Normally, first-due Ladder 68 would have arrived simultaneously and backed up the engine with forcible entry, but that company was unavailable at the time of the initial response. Harris ordered his crew to grab a ground ladder and access the second floor through a neighboring apartment. Although necessary, this action consumed precious time that the fire used to spread to the third floor via the exterior wood patios.

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